No Longer Prototypical
Prototype first came on the scene in 2009 and went head-to-head with inFamous for the crown of “super-hero-open-world-sandbox-game.” It was a fight that it ultimately lost. Fast forward three years later, and now Prototype 2 craters onto the scene all by itself, with a new hero and enough angst to choke even a hormonally starved Twilight fan. It’s also had the benefit of seeing what inFamous 2 did nearly a year earlier when updating its super heroics for a sequel. Unfortunately, lessons have not been learned.
A World Where Everyone Is Horrible
Alec Mercer, anti-hero of the last game, is now a full-on bad guy, seemingly responsible for another outbreak of Killer Tentacle Virus in New York, and the massacre of one Joseph Heller’s family. Heller, the new anti-hero, has just one goal; make Mercer pay. From the start to finish, this is a story of revenge, although the target may switch as twists, turns and re-twists abound. It’s not a great story of revenge, and it’s reliance on a 90s narrative tone of “everyone, including you, is a bad person,” makes for a fairly one-note mood, even if it also makes it easier in the mind of the player to arbitrarily kill everyone in sight without a feeling guilty. But where inFamous 2’s simple choices and characterization managed to create a tale with some substance, despite the comic book sensibilities, Prototype 2 merely grunts a lot of hate at everything in sight and makes it difficult to care about anything that happens. Even when they try to portray Heller as a man capable of caring about his family, its overshadowed by the sheer excess of “vengeful badass” the game wallows the rest of the time.
Moving on to the more technical side of things, we see an open world with graphics that are about what you’d expect for a game of this scale. Heller and company don’t look all that great—one reason most of the cut scenes are handled by pre-rendered video that’s a mix of both CG and live action film—but since most of the time you’re seeing the action from the traditional, distant third person, it’s not an issue. Heller’s ability to run up walls and bound off towers is legitimate cause for concern in the serious draw-in/pop up category, although Radical has wisely decided to add fog and smoke to this war-torn New York to mask the more egregious examples. Still, what this engine lacks in detail it makes up for in reliability. Solid frame rates are accompanied by little to no screen tearing, and the engine manages to avoid most of the embarrassing glitches like “falling” through the world, clipping and other immersion breaking bugs. It manages to render decent distances at a glance—the view from the top of the Rockefeller tower is impressive—but Radical drew the line at making the world a load-free experience. Whereas in Grand Theft Auto IV you can freely drive from borough of Liberty City to another seamlessly, Prototype 2 plays it safe—performance-wise—and requires you to sneak onto a helicopter and load into one of three areas. The sound department is where Prototype 2 has no problems putting its best foot forward. As an action game in a contemporary setting, you get all the multi-directional explosions from tanks, attack choppers and Horrible Tentacle Things you’d expect. It’s not as abusive on the sub-woofer as one might expect, but all the sounds come through clear and have a decent amount of presence. The score is fairly limited in its selection, and very early on in the game you’ll be hearing repeated tracks, but the music hits the right mood with urgency and menace. The voice acting is actually quite good, it’s just put to the service of not great dialog, but a lot of quality voice actors are here, including the “standards” like Yuri Lowenthal, Kari Wahlgren and Troy Baker. The delivery is good, but there’s only so much you can do with a lot of swearing and death threats repeated ad nauseum.
Hamster Wheel Of The Apocalypse
Prototype 2 continues to show off Radical Entertainment’s great gift to gamers; they know how to make you feel like an obscenely powerful creature of destruction. Everything about the Prototype series shows off the roots of Radical’s super heroic roots in games like The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, right down to the obvious, Hulk-inspired leaps from building to building. The basic mechanics of being super-powered are well conceived and well executed. Heller is a beast even at the beginning of the game with a paltry selection of destructive powers to choose from, but the use of those powers is so easy, fast and elegant, it quickly becomes second nature tearing through enemies and bounding from one skyscraper to the next. As an exercise of pure, excessive chaos, Prototype 2 is a resounding success. It might not control quite as responsively as inFamous 2, but it’s still a step above the clunkiness of the typical 3rd person action game, with a relatively smart camera that keeps the attention focused where it should be. The absolute cornerstone of Prototype 2, the implementation of controls and super-powers, is polished and fun. It just might have been better served in another game.
Despite its large areas, Prototype 2 is not the biggest open world game you’ll find on the market today. It’s not just a matter of real-estate, Grand Theft Auto IV is, after all, based in a pseudo-New York of its own at a similar scale, but that 2008 classic is by far the bigger game because of two critical ingredients; content and variety. Aside from the obligatory bosses, Prototype 2 will show you just about everything that you’re going to fight in first 2-3 hours of gameplay. It’s shame, because it means the fantastic combat and super power mechanics they’ve built into the game don’t really get to show off their full potential in a variety of situations. You’ll gain new powers, but still be fighting the same old enemies, and they rarely require anything elaborate, which is a shame since the combat mechanics are fully capable of that. The two basic things you’ll be doing, over and over again in Prototype 2 are fighting things and consuming victims to take on their appearance so you can sneak into certain areas and… fight more things. That’s the bulk of your gameplay experience, even in side-missions, of which there are very few.
That’s the other big problem. For a world this big, there’s just not that much to do. inFamous 2 and other open world games like Just Cause 2 and Red Dead Redemption fill the world with side-quests, collectibles, and other activities that either give players something to do, or fill in more of the plot for the curious. Prototype 2 attempts to do the same but with far less ambition. Yes there are collectibles, but a dedicated explorer can find all of them in just a couple of hours. There are also side-missions, but only one of them shakes things up with a timed “fetch-run” where freight is scattered around on roof tops and you have to get them all before the clock runs out, but the rest is more of the same. You fight, or sneak and then you fight. inFamous 2 as with its predecessor, tasked you with missions that impacted your morality scale, put you to work stopping crimes, finding and/disabling surveillance units on buildings and other activities. Red Dead Redemption made you a bounty hunter on the side, let you track, hunt and kill wildlife for fun and profit, or even just sit down at the card table to gamble. Prototype 2 never goes all-out in the same way, content to check off the “sidequest” box for the sake of doing so, without any heart or gusto for it. It seems like Radical spent so much time making sure Prototype 2 played well that they forgot the audience needed something to play in. And the repetition of activities begins to eat away at the appeal of the core gameplay through overexposure. It’s a lot like drinking Coke on a hot day; it might cool and refresh you at first, but after three straight hours of drinking Coke the flavor is tiresome and the drink is tepid and flat. For people that pre-ordered the game, there’s some minor alleviation in the form of “Radnet,” Radical’s answer to the “Autolog” or “Ridernet” of EA games where the results of tasks are kept online for friends to attempt to beat, but since this isn’t a standard part of the package for most gamers, it’s hard to recommend it as a selling point at this time.
What we’ve got with Prototype 2 is a game that does basically one thing, and it does it extremely well; super-powered destruction. What it really needed to boost this up into a must-have game was a greater variety of activity, and, perhaps more importantly, a compelling story and characters to hang on so that we actually care about pushing forward. Mass Effect may essentially be just about shooting things in corridors, but players care about that shooting because they want to see what happens next to their favorite characters. Prototype 2, where everyone is immoral, amoral and unlikable, makes it easy to not feel bad about wrecking everything in sight, but also makes it easy to not give a damn about what happens next. This is a game best enjoyed in short spurts, probably by more mainstream gamers that play for shorter periods. Dedicated, hardcore gamers will bump up against the game’s limited palette early on and this will kill the affection for what is an otherwise brilliantly realized combat engine.